by Brooklyn Rue
The Barbican reopened to the public on 13 July 2020, reopening the acclaimed Masculinities: Liberation through Photography exhibition which ran for four weeks before the gallery temporarily closed in March due to Covid-19. Now, the exhibition will run until 23 August 2020 and is available for viewing in person with new social distancing measures as well as online through an exhibition guide and curator tour.
Masculinities: Liberation through Photography features over 300 works by more than 50 pioneering artists, photographers, and filmmakers from around the world whose works touch on the topic of masculinity from a variety of perspectives. These works range from the 1960s to the present day and seek to address the production, performance, and experience of masculinity, which has become a contentious term often precursored by words like ‘fragile’ and ‘toxic.’ This exhibition sets masculinity within the larger context of the contemporary moment following the sexual revolution, struggle for civil rights, growth of the gay rights movement, increased class consciousness, and anti-Vietnam War stance of the 1960s in Europe and North America and brings us to the more recent #MeToo movement. With these events serving as the backdrop for our understandings of masculinity, the exhibition speaks up on issues of queer identity, race, power, patriarchy, and gendered stereotypes as well as examines insititutions the likes of family, politics, the nation state, sports, and more.
As the title of the exhibition suggests, this collection of artwork seeks not to present masculinity as monolithic — it rejects the notion of there being one ideal masculinity in favor of a comprehension of the variety of ‘masculinities’ performed — and analyzes gender as a complex social construct. The exhibition also claims that it argues for “an understanding of masculinity liberated from societal expectations and gender norms.”
Seeking to address a host of topics, Masculinities: Liberation through Photography is broken up into six subsections. The first, ‘Disrupting the Archetype,’ examines the representation of men in “conventional and at times clichéd” masculine roles and environments. It includes portraits of men engaging in bodybuilding and sports, expressing military involvement, and doing a variety of other activities stereotypically associated with men. These representations, however, do not keep the stereotype in tact but rather disrupt it through discrete ways, often queering the subject and rejecting the hypermasculinity they are performing in their role. For instance, American photographer Catherine Opie in her series High School Football focuses on young football players who are on the cusp of adolescence and adulthood, often presenting these figures in power stances which assert their physical strength. Still, these images bear a consistent undercurrent of vulnerability and tenderness exhibited by the subjects’ youth, making these images out to be raw insights into these young men’s performances of masculinity.
The second section, ‘Male Order: Power, Patriarchy and Space,’ brings the viewer into traditionally male spaces the likes of male-dominated American politics, private members’ clubs, and fraternities. Here, we see an intersection with issues of gender, race, class, and power which most privilege wealthy, white, heterosexual men. Next, ‘Too Close to Home: Family and Fatherhood’ represents “the ‘messiness’ of life” by calling attention to issues of misogyny, sexuality, and violence, as well as intimacy and family drama. ‘Queer Masculinity’ and ‘Reclaiming the Black Body’ both present masculinity from the vantage of the marginalized, speaking back to stereotypes, objecting to profiling and prejudice, and presenting the complexities of lived experiences for queer and Black men.
Finally, the work included in ‘Women on Men: Reversing the Male Gaze’ is largely motivated by the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s which critiqued hegemonic representations of masculinity. These works challenge the assumption of men as active and women as passive and in many instances engages in a subversive role reversal. Laurie Anderson’s Fully Automated Nikon exposes men who catcall her on the streets of New York City, imposing a white, blank strip over their eyes so as to reject the male gaze and also including their crude comments in captions underneath each image. Marianne Wex’s Let’s Take Back Our Space: ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures’ is an extensive survey of the ways men assume more space than women and the differences in how the genders present themselves through their bodies in fashion photographs, art history journals, newspapers, and other sources. Both Anderson’s and Wex’s pieces reject the male gaze and expose gender imbalances in contemporary society.
For those interested in learning more about the exhibition and the topic of masculinity more broadly, the Barbican has a range of artist interviews available through videos, podcasts, and in depth articles as well as a Spotify playlist and curated reading list for further education.